What brought you to TLI?
I was working looking for something different from what I was currently doing and heard about a farm and ranch manager job through Steve Renich. I applied and was hired for that position. The job title and duties have changed some through the years, but I do many of the same things I started with. I will have been here 14 years as of this April.
You’re a local farmer – can you tell be a little bit about your own farm and how you translate that knowledge and your work history to working at TLI?
I am more of a hobby farmer personally. We have horses and chickens and I grow some brome hay. But I have a lot of familiarity with using all kinds of ag equipment. I have a career history in mechanics, so most of what I do is fixing farm equipment and maintenance on everything from tractors and mowers to the fleet of vehicles we use here.
Since we are working on a new approach to agriculture with perennial crops, there are tools that people need that don’t exist yet. I have done quite a bit of customization, fabrication, and building accessories, especially for threshing equipment. The researchers come to me and explain what they they are looking for. Usually I can see it in my head, so I start sketching what I think they need, and when they are satisfied, I get to work making the tool for that particular job.
Last year, Tim Crews needed a tool to cut strips in an alfalfa field so we could plant other perennial crops to gain the nitrogen benefits of the legume. So, I fabricated an undercutter that would cut two-foot swaths and we were able to successfully intercrop Kernza®. (See page 6 of Perennial Impact Report under Soil Ecology.)
How do you see TLI’s research being able to help local farmers?
Farmers pay attention to what others are doing around them. They like to see what kinds of experiments people are trying and what works best. Some people are curious about perennial crops and ready to start trying them right now. Full-time farming can have a very tight bottom line, so some are not interested in trying anything new yet, but as perennials become more economically feasible, I think more people will want to try them and maybe switch over. Right now, even annual farmers might be interested in using perennial grasses for buffer strips and forage and our silphium for honey production.
Can you describe some of your typical tasks through various seasons of the year?
Fall is my favorite time of year. We have Prairie Festival of course, that is all hands on deck. We are very busy with harvesting. Then we put the farm to bed for the winter, which means cleaning up fields and chopping up stalks of some perennial plants to make into compost.
In the winter, I spend many hours fabricating equipment and fixing machinery right here in our own shop at The Land Institute. I also help manage and care for the bison herd on our land, including swathing, baling, and feeding Kernza stubble to them.
In the spring, the biggest job is making sure all the equipment is oiled up and ready to go – Adam Gorrell does most of the planting. I also am in charge of field burning, which generally happens in March. Being spring in Kansas, we have to wait for days that aren’t too windy but are dry enough to burn. I mow a line around the area that needs to be burned, then carefully burn a black line all the way around. Once there is a perimeter, you can light one side and it will move across the area but stay within the line.
In the summer, one of the biggest tasks is constant weeding. We have special equipment that gets between the rows, but depending on how much rain there is, it is a daily task. I also help train interns on the proper use of equipment. Some of them come from bigger cities and have never driven before. I have taught quite a few people how to drive stick shift during their time here!
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is keeping all the equipment and vehicles going. Fixing things is a daily occurrence because we have so much equipment and so many different people working with it on all the many projects we have going.
What are some of the most exciting developments you have seen over the past few years?
During my time here at The Land Institute, I have seen the perennial sorghum go from wild and towering overhead to a more harvestable height with much bigger heads. I have seen how Kernza grain size has increased considerably. One of the most exciting things I have seen is how much Ebony Murrell has accomplished in just a few years of leading the Crop Protection Ecology Program – taking eucosma moths from a plague on silphium to a manageable pest and helping integrate other pest management strategies quickly and effectively. I like learning about insects, so this is an area I think is really interesting.
Do you have any personal goals at TLI over the next 5-10 years?
I am looking forward to seeing how TLI keeps moving forward with research and making perennial crops a reality. For myself, especially as we continue to grow, it would be great to get a dedicated mechanic apprentice at some point. We will only have more equipment to keep up as we grow!
Do you have any interests or hobbies outside of work that you would like to share?
My wife, my daughter, and I all love riding. My wife and daughter do barrel racing and my daughter also competes in rodeos.